What is the history of science?

by Professor James Secord FBA

14 Jan 2021

A colourful print depicting a busy urban scene with many fantastical inventions powered by steam, depicting the excitement around new technologies.
'March of Intellect' print by William Heath, c.1828. © Trustees of the British Museum.

When we think about the past, we think about history. When we think about the future, we think about science. Science builds upon its past, but also, simultaneously, denies it. As the Romantic essayist Thomas de Quincey claimed, for working scientists Isaac Newton’s Principia of 1687 has no more value than an outdated cookbook. What then does a history of science look like?

The first page of Isaac Newton's 'Principia Mathematica', showing the title and a paragraph of Latin text
The first page of Isaac Newton's 'Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica', 1687. Photo by SSPL / Getty Images.

Science has been made over thousands of years by people from a diversity of cultural traditions. Activities such as experiment originated in Renaissance pharmacies, kitchens and artisan workshops; evolutionary theory drew on sources ranging from sheep breeding to the economics of human populations; astronomy emerged from attempts to read the heavenly language of the stars.

The history of science itself developed as a discipline in Europe and North America during the late 19th century, as a way of charting the rise of a distinctively modern world under European domination. Science seemed uniquely a product of the white men in the west. In recent years, however, historians of science have turned this view on its head, so that science is understood as the outcome of global interaction, conflict and exchange. The rise of the universities as a key site for learning in medieval Europe, the reorganisation of scientific disciplines in the decades around 1800 and the rise of genomics and computing in the late 20th century: these and other pivotal episodes are part of changes in cross-cultural commerce and trade.

Science, which has often aimed to establish universal standards, has close connections with the history of empires, from Assyria, Egypt and the Americas to China and India. It has been at the service of princely courts, the military and other centres of power. At the same time, however, the ‘scientist’ (a modern word, dating from the 19th century) is often recognised as having a special kind of moral authority, associated with ideals of detached expertise and neutral objectivity.

Nothing in our culture seems more objective than ‘nature’: but how did that come to be the case? The history of science helps us to understand how things we now take for granted, from the circulation of the blood to the existence of black holes, have been accepted. This requires looking at knowledge in the making, with false starts and wrong directions taken just as seriously as what now appear as brilliant insights. It also means looking at how consensus is established, the diverse range of activities that go into the making of science, and how science becomes part of everyday life.

A circular clay tablet with depictions of planetary systems carved into it.
A Neo-Assyrian celestial planisphere; in this stylised map, the sky has been divided into eight sections. It represents the night sky of 3-4 January 650 BC over Nineveh. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Historians of science do not simply chronicle progress towards the present, nor do they search for the origins of a one-size-fits-all scientific method. Instead, they ask how discovery became identified as a key feature of science, and how different methods have arisen in different subjects. They look to the material traces of the past, preserved as instruments, maps, clay tablets, palm leaf manuscripts, archaeological remains, and books. The range of skills and methods needed to interrogate these materials means that historians of science are found in a remarkable variety of places, from dedicated academic departments and science studies units to libraries and museums.

Perhaps more than just about any other subject, the history of science challenges profound divisions in our disciplinary map of knowledge. If you walk down Carlton House Terrace, home of Britain’s learned academies, it’s easy to be confused. Where is the history of science? At Nos 6-9 the Royal Society has a fine library and journal in the field, part of its mission for ‘improving natural knowledge’. But just next door at Nos 10-11 is the British Academy, where the history of science interacts with the full range of other humanities and social science subjects.

Perhaps awkward questions are important to ask.

Jim Secord is Emeritus Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2020. He has written extensively on the history of 19th century science, including Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. He is director of the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University Library in Cambridge, which is editing all the letters to and from Charles Darwin. The edition will be completed in 30 volumes in 2022.


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